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Strawberry decided to sign a five-year, $20.25 million contract with the Dodgers in November '90. "We'll be a better team without him," Cashen promised, obviously unprepared for the team's 208-277 free-fall since then. Cashen was relieved to be rid of Strawberry, who seemed to launch as many controversies as home runs (he holds the franchise record, 252).
For 10 years Cashen had disdained the free-agent game, insulated by that rich farm system. He quickly changed that posture after his best player and best baseball mind left him in the space of five weeks in 1990. At the urging of Harrelson and Harazin, he signed Coleman to a four-year, $11.95 million contract. It was an act of desperation that accelerated the decline of the Mets as much as any single move.
By the end of the 1991 season Cashen finally agreed to step aside. Against their better judgment, Wilpon and Doubleday turned the entire operation over to Harazin, a bookish former management labor lawyer who admitted to never once having owned a pair of blue jeans. More important, as Wilpon knew, Harazin's baseball knowledge was dangerously shallow.
"Al was running both sides of the business," Wilpon says. "I think that was a mistake. The days of one general manager doing everything are over. Nelson and I knew it then. But we liked Al and decided to give it a shot. It was a costly shot for us."
The Mets' problems deepened. Last June, Wilpon realized that putting Harazin at the helm of the entire organization had been a mistake, just as his gut had forewarned him. He was entertaining Doubleday, his neighbor, at his Long Island home one day when the two men resolved to take action. "We have to go back to our plan," Wilpon said of their old intention to separate the baseball and business operations of the club. Doubleday agreed. Harazin, though, wasn't so amenable. He quit rather than be confined to running the business operations, a job that was filled last month by Jack Diller, who had been dismissed from a similar role with New York's NBA Knicks and NHL Rangers.
McIlvaine was rehired by the Mets to run the baseball operations on July 8, alter having left the Padres four weeks earlier in a dispute over a directive from the San Diego owners to trade the club's high-salaried players. The Mets considered no one else for the job. It was a curious choice, given McIlvaine's checkered trading record in his first tour in New York. Wilpon, though, believed McIlvaine's expertise at evaluating young talent was what the Mets needed most as they started rebuilding. McIlvaine has already allowed oft-injured pitcher Sid Fernandez, Howard Johnson and Murray to leave as free agents, while considering trades involving Bonilla and Saberhagen that will bring the Mets some prospects.
This October, McIlvaine sat behind the backstop at Veterans Stadium and watched Dykstra star in the World Series, another obvious reminder of his and the franchise's failings. Yes, Scioscia had kept the Mets out of the World Series in 1988. But since then Aguilera, Cone, Dykstra, Mitchell, Myers, Tapani and West had helped their teams get there. Of course, none of those teams was the Mets.
"Come here, let me show you something," Wilpon says. He rises from a chair in the Fifth Avenue office of his real estate company and walks across the room to a white rectangular box that is so large it is resting across four chairs. There is a great sense of purpose in his walk now. He is finished watching others run his baseball team. McIlvaine and Oilier will report directly to him. The Mets won't embarrass him again the way they did in 1993.
"It was," he says, "one of the most painful years of my life. The business community and the private community, with all of the charity work we do, know that Nelson and I are at the top. To see what happened with this team was very, very painful. That's why I tell you this is a whole new thing we're starting."
Wilpon wants former Mets such as Tom Seaver, Mookie Wilson, Lee Mazzilli and Rafael Santana to come work for the organization. He wants "the greatest community outreach program" in sports. He wants grand entranceways and redesigned fan services at what has been a tacky Shea Stadium. He wants updated, cheery uniforms for the ushers. He has ordered intensive customer-relations training for all of the organization's business managers, including himself. He has talked with the Disney people, Universal Studio executives and other resort managers to learn how to attract and treat customers.